Burton and Coghill's adaptation of Marlowe's last, and perhaps most famous play, is a garish mixture of camp and culture, and deserves to be better known. Although there are two other filmed versions, neither Svankmajer (1994) or Murnau (1927) utilise the Marlovian text, which is often as distinctive, and as great, as the playwright's more frequently filmed contemporary Shakespeare. Coghill has reduced the content to the essentials, stripped out a lot of the original bawdiness, done some modernising, and has even borrowed the occasional line from another play to make the project more accessible to the general viewer. The result is bizarre and compulsive at the same time, a film entirely characteristic of the time.
Marlowe's morality tale tells the story of the German scholar and conjurer, Faustus, who abjures philosophy, learning, and religion to sell his soul to the devil in return for 27 years of youth and pleasure. During the time of this blood-sealed pact on earth, he has Mephistopheles as his servant. The lustful and arrogant Faust indulges his earthly appetites, sees the seven deadly sins, performs magic for the emperor, and has fun whilst invisible at the expense of the Pope, before being dragged down to hell at the hour of reckoning.
None of this would seem out of place if reworked in a Hammer horror film, and memories of the Bray studio's sensibilities duly spring to mind as the film unfolds. Entirely set-bound, the film has a claustrophobic feel, entirely in keeping with Fausts' self-centredness. As he experiences the diabolic freedom to indulge himself it is a delusion, as at the same time he is by necessity trapped and inevitably condemned to hellfire. The rooms he moves in are artificially cluttered, full of garish colours, skulls, books, furniture and costumes. The trappings of the world impinge upon the viewer, constantly emphasising just how transient it all is.
Unfortunately for this adaption, matters are thrown off balance by the casting. A busty Elizabeth Taylor, appears as Helen of Troy, the continuous source of Faust's lust and fantasy (The face that launched a thousand ships'), mute throughout. While the decision to maximise the presence of this star is understandable, her overexposure tends to push the matter of damnation into the background, reducing Faustus' longing for material fulfilment to that of a school boyish crush. The rest of the cast, drawn from the Oxford Dramatic society, is overshadowed by Burton and Taylor, whose stellar status tells in every scene.
One or two unintentionally ludicrous aspects do not help matters of dramatic gravity, but have their own appeal. For much of the first act, before he is damned and made young again, Burton wears a thick pair of black glasses, presumably to emphasise his learning. While these also allow for some interesting photographic effects, his comic aspect is distracting. Further on, Faustus is confronted by three of the deadly sins at once, who appear as knights. Those like myself who treasure the Knights Who Go Neh! from Monty Python's Life of Brian' can savour this moment in a way completely unintended. In contrast, when Faustus plays farting tricks at the Pope's court further on, Burton seems ill at ease at the light footed and earthy humour required. As a tragedian he was a famous Hamlet, and would have made a marvellous Tamburlaine (Marlowe's grandest tragic hero). The scholar-magician Faustus by contrast, who spouts Latin off the cuff and has studied all knowledge, requires a different presence. Burton's rich delivery of lines cannot ultimately overcome this basic issue of miscasting. Occasionally, (as in the great Christ's blood streaming in the firmament' speech) and in some of the grander soliloquies, he makes himself felt. Otherwise one yearns for an actor like Nichol Williamson (a notable Merlin in Boorman's Excalibur'), at his prime at this time, to be in the role.
Actors aside, the film boasts an evocative score by the prolific Maro Nascimbene, who also did fine work on Hammer's One Million Years BC' (1966) around the same time as well as Barabbas' (1962). As already mentioned, Gábor Pogány's cinematography is also a stand out, which captures exactly the peculiarly hallucinogenic nature of Faustus' incantations, spells and visions. Optical tricks and double exposure abound and are generally well conceived and carried out. Having said that, there is no sense of horror in Faustus' fate or in his eventual descent into a small scale hell. This is partly to do with budget of course, but one is tempted to make unflattering comparisons with other representations, such as in Dante's Inferno' (1935) - which achieved a greater sense of awe of damnation, in black and white, and with fewer camera tricks, almost thirty five years before.
But there's much entertainment to be had from the film, representing a colourful attempt to translate one of the greatest plays of the day to the screen. Those who enjoy the contemporary horror product will find it a change and lovers of serious drama will be intrigued too, even if ultimately there's rather less cinematic magic than one might have hoped for.